From Rags to Riches


Cotton has been a fabric of human life for thousands of years, but Westerners came to cotton only in the past two centuries.  Linen predates cotton as the crucial European and Mediterranean fiber plant, indeed fine linen was a prized product even in Egyptian antiquity.  And it was precious. 

Sails for tall ships were made of linen and hemp, not cotton.  Clothing and household fabrics were linen.  The backing for Thomas Gainsborough’s painting, Blue Boy, is linen fabric, stretched on a wood frame and sized with gesso.  Scores of occupations related to production of linen yarns, cloth, and by-products. This fiber is so woven into Western life as to have impacted the very words we use. For example, when you set a line, you are following a pattern in which early “lines” were struck using linen threads. Inner layers of garments were so commonly made of linen as to be called “lining”. Following French terminologies, many people refer to underwear as lingerie. Linseed oil, extracted from flax seed, highlights its utility in forming flexible, durable layers for flooring, thus linoleum.*

Historically, even used linen was totally recycled; people made livelihoods as “pickers” – sorting through rags to create the right streams for production of paper.  Printing paper, rag it was called, was made from recycled linen fabric; most of the Huntington’s early books are printed on paper made from linen rag.  Rag paper was so important that people were pressured to turn over worn clothing.  The Boston Newsletter published the following plea in 1769:

Rags are as beauties, which concealed lie,
But when in paper how it charms the eye,
Pray save your rags, new beauties to discover,
For paper, truly, everyone’s a lover.
By the pen and the press such knowledge is displayed,
As wouldn’t exist if paper was not made.

Linen fibers are extracted from the stems of flax plants, which you can see each spring, growing and flowering in the Herb Garden.  Just examining the delicate, 2-3’ tall stems must provoke many questions.  How many stems does someone have to grow and harvest to generate enough string to make the sails for a tall ship, or create the canvas for a full-length manor portrait, or even print a Shakespearean folio?  Or, incredibly, to weave the 30 lbs. of linen needed to wrap each Egyptian mummy?   Who did all of this work?  How much hand work was dedicated to turning flax into fabrics before industrialization?  

Nahum Tate, in the introduction his translations (1689) of Abraham Cowley’s Six Books on Plants, extols Flax: “In a single instance, let us behold the progress but of one plant, common in its growth, important in its application. The Flax robes us in the whiteness of snow, it comfortably spreads our tables and our couch, keeps clean our bodies, affords us paper whereon to express our thoughts, and wings to waft them to the remotest quarters of the globe.”

A stand of flax in the Herb Garden.

The production of fiber alone must have been an enormous agricultural effort.  Flax plants can grow closely together, as close as reeds or grasses, which is good news because it takes many stems to generate enough yarn just make a bedsheet.  For the best quality linen, stems are uprooted and laid to dry while still green, then bundled and processed.  Once cleaned, the long bast fibers running along the plant vascular system must be separated from other plant tissues, a process called retting, which we might describe as rotting.  The resilient fibers are then washed clean of other tissue, dried, spun into threads (yarn), and woven as cloth, both coarse and fine.  

*It doesn’t end there… Spinning (flax and wool) was “women’s work,” and was clearly central to the duties of young, unwed women. Those who never married acquired a label as “spinsters.” To organize the potential tangle of flax fiber in preparation for spinning thread, loose ropes of flax fiber (or wool) were wrapped around a rod, called a distaff, which became symbolic of a woman’s life, and her side of the family. The male family was referred to as the “spear” side.

NOTES:  1 lb of Flax fiber makes about 300 yards of #1 cut yarn, or 600 yards of the finer #2 cut yarn.  A high yielding field of flax would generate around 890 lbs of fiber per acre, which is about 267,200 yards (51 miles) of #1 cut yarn. 

See also: – a “little red hen” article that suggests enough flax can be grown in a 400 sq ft plot to make a single shirt.  

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